Ask Dave: An In-depth look into Titan Baseball

Losing your No. 1 and No. 2 pitchers for at least a month -- for most college baseball teams -- would spell disaster. For Cal State Fullerton, it spells No. 4 team in the country. Rather than feel sorry for themselves or use it as an excuse, the Titans haven't missed a beat. In fact, the team has taken a potential negative and turned into a positive.

With Wes Littleton serving a team suspension and Ryan Schreppel sidelined after knee surgery, the Titans have approached the predicament as an opportunity to get other pitchers some work, get them innings they otherwise would've had difficulty getting. In a nice bit of timing, Darric Merrell and Travis Ingle both came back from their respective injuries to make up for the absence of Littleton and Schreppel. And the team keeps rolling. When Littleton and Schreppel do come back, the staff figures to be even stronger. 

We're about at the midway point of the season now and, as always, there's no shortage of topics as we discuss the latest happenings with Titans assistant coach/pitching coach/recruiting coordinator Dave Serrano. Let's start out with the injury report. What's the latest on Ryan Schreppel?

Coach Serrano: Well, it's been about 10 days (since the surgery). He's walking on crutches now. He's able to play catch. Originally, when he went in for the surgery, it was supposed to be 3 to 4 weeks. Then the meniscus was torn more than they anticipated, so when he came out of surgery, they said 8 to 10 weeks. But, according to the doctors and our trainers, it's going to be whenever his leg feels strong enough to come back. Seeing the progress he's made already -- I'm not a doctor, but just my assumption -- I'd say it's somewhere between 4 to 6, maybe 7 weeks from the surgery. So he will be back toward the end of our season. So in light of that, redshirting wouldn't realistically be an option for him at this point?

Coach Serrano: No, he will not redshirt, no. He'll be back. I would be shocked if he wasn't back before the last three weeks before the regionals. And with his mentality, he's going to be doing everything he can in the training room to get back out there as soon as possible ...

Coach Serrano: Yeah, our doctors and trainers are working diligently to try to get him back. And obviously with his drive, he's going to do everything he can. And probably most importantly, the athlete he is, he should recover more quickly than the normal patient. Justin Smyres didn't start yesterday (Sunday); did he get hurt again? 

Coach Serrano: Justin had a case of pink-eye this weekend. He actually had it Saturday night and it got worse. He had a tough time with vision. Is that something that lingers for only a few days? How long does that usually last?

Coach Serrano: He's on medication. I think it's only a couple or three days. It's very contagious, so we made it a point to not let him touch any of the other guys or let any other guys get real close to him. So he'll be fine by the weekend then, right?

Coach Serrano: Yeah, he should be. ( update: Smyres started on Tuesday at USD). In light of Schreppel's injury and with Wes' suspension, is it possible we might see Mike Martinez as a pitcher?

Coach Serrano: No. Obviously the pitching staff is proving that we are very deep, as we anticipated going into the year. And even with these two situations that have come up -- Schreppel's injury and Littleton's suspension -- I don't think we've missed a beat. 

As the pitching coach, it's kind of neat to see. It's a challenge, it's very challenging, and I think our pitching staff has stepped up and done a tremendous job. And now with Travis Ingle and Darric Merrell back in the mix, I think it's gonna be a pleasant thing to see. Guys that haven't been getting an opportunity rise to the occasion, like John Tucker, who went out and threw five great innings yesterday (Sunday), and Ricky Romero who continues to pitch well. Jason Windsor has stepped right into that role as the Friday starter and has done tremendous in his two starts, and continues to have a great year. Sean Martin continues to be consistent. I think the Sunday game against Northridge, even though it wasn't a save situation, I thought Chad Cordero threw as well as he's thrown all year. I think he had his good fastball back. 

Obviously, we'd like everyone healthy and everyone back on the roster, but I think this is going to be a good situation for us, where we can continue to get guys innings. When everybody comes together and everybody's healthy and back on the roster, I think it's just going to make for a great situation for us. The most encouraging aspect of the weekend for you had to be Darric Merrell's performance ...

Coach Serrano: He did throw very well. He stayed in character this weekend, and threw five great innings. His velocity numbers were up, but most importantly was the aggressiveness and how he attacked the strike zone and went after the hitters. He and I had a talk on Thursday going into the weekend and I reiterated that to him, that he had come back a little passive and was a bit more result-oriented than he wanted to be. And I felt the scouts and the draft were getting in his way, and he just had to go back to how he came in as a freshman, just as a baseball player and a pitcher and block all that stuff out. And he went out and took it to them, and was outstanding ... was as good as I've seen him in a long, long time. And is Travis Ingle at the point yet where he can stretch it out to more than a couple innings, maybe 3 or 4 innings? 

Coach Serrano: Well, Travis hasn't had as much throwing as Darric has. Darric was on a 2- to 3-week program where we were having him face hitters and in practice and he would stretch it out in the bullpen. Travis, his throwing has been very spotty over the last month, so it might be some time. 

Travis is a very good athlete, he stays in great shape. My plan right now, with Merrell and Ingle, until they get back to full strength, is probably use them in Jason's spot that he vacated when he went in the rotation, that long relief role, first up out of the bullpen. I think with their experience and what they've done in the past, it just secures our bullpen and keeps us strong. Back to injuries for a second. Shane Costa going into last weekend, his left elbow was a concern after being hit by a pitch at Loyola Marymount, but I guess it wasn't much of a problem, judging by the weekend he had against Northridge ...

Coach Serrano: With the results he put up over the weekend, obviously it didn't hamper him too much, but he got hit pretty hard against Loyola on Wednesday. And the first indication was that he could have a fracture, but luckily for us he didn't. It's just a deep bruise. And he's wearing a pad right now. What's going on with Shawn Scobee? It's been several weeks since he's been in a game ...

Coach Serrano: You know, he's fallen into that situation where there's a lot of guys playing well ahead of him. There's quite a few guys on the bench that are in that same situation. Shawn obviously is a little bit behind right now, and I think he would probably even admit that. Obviously, he's dying to play and he wants to play, just like we want all our guys to be. But there are some guys doing better than him, and we make it a point that we're gonna play the guys that are doing the best, maybe not always the guys with the most potential or the guys that were drafted the highest, it's the guys that are doing it day in and day out. 

And this is a perfect case right here. Not every guy that comes into our program gets off to a great start. It takes some longer to adapt to the system and adapt to the level of play. And by no means do we think Shawn Scobee is a bust. I think he is still going to be a good baseball player, and he continues to show that in pregame and during batting practice and during practices. He continues to do a good job in hitting. And who knows, he could play a part on this team. We still have him penciled in to be a big factor in this program in the future. That's a good point, that not everybody comes in right away and gets off to a great start or contributes immediately. Look at someone like Mark Kotsay. He didn't start until midway through his freshman year ... 

Coach Serrano: Exactly. Let's look at the catching situation. P.J. Pilittere and Kurt Suzuki have done a great job this season. P.J. has really stepped up his game offensively and Kurt has developed into one the best clutch hitters on the team, all the while both guys continue to provide outstanding play behind the plate ... what can you tell us about these guys? How does the coaching staff decide who starts on a given day?

Coach Serrano: It's ironic that you bring that up because just yesterday (Sunday) I said it's been overlooked, what those guys are doing for the success of this team. The success of the pitching staff is a direct result of what they're doing. I pulled those two guys aside before the game just to reiterate that to them because, like I said, it goes unnoticed about both those guys. 

They've done a phenomenal job of accepting the way Coach Horton is using them. What I think he has committed to doing is catching them every other game, and it keeps them both fresh. And it keeps them both sharp. And they both have adapted to that system and they've done a stellar job. We do not drop off when either one of them is in the game. They both bring good things to the table. They both have great leadership. The pitchers have a great rapport with them, and vice-versa, and I think, like you said, offensively they both have stepped it up and Kurt has come up with some big clutch hits and P.J. is having a great type of season. That's a good point about keeping them fresh. With teams that primarily use one catcher, you'll often see that guy physically wear down by the end of the year ...

Coach Serrano: Yeah, and you know, they're the best of friends. They're roommates, and that's a different situation for two guys that are competing for the same position. But I think they both equally push each other and I think it brings their games to a higher level. I think the world of them as people and as players and again, I think what has gone unnoticed is the consistent play of those guys, with the pitchers having the confidence they can stretch the zone and bounce curveballs and know those guys are going to block them with two strikes. Those guys are a big reason why the Titans are off to a 21-5 start (as of Monday). Catching and pitching go hand in hand and a lot of the time the pitchers get the credit, but the catchers play a huge role in their success. Let's talk about Wes' suspension. How has the rest of the team responded to this situation?

Coach Serrano: The team has handled it well. They've handled it maturely. The team will accept Wes back with open arms. I know Wes is a good person who made a mistake. He's also a good baseball player, but that isn't the reason why they will accept him back. 

They realize that he is a person, he is a human being who made a mistake and he deserves another chance. It will be exciting when we get Wes back after he serves his penalty time and all that, and we'll get past it. I mean, it's been a lingering thing on this team for a while, it's something this team doesn't really deserve because this team is committed to one another. I think these are things that happen on a lot of teams, that sometimes go unnoticed. Sometimes the media doesn't get this and it gets blown out of proportion. 

I'm not saying what Wes did is a little thing, but I think because of the magnitude of what our program is and the magnitude of the type of player Wes is, I think that's why this has gotten so much media attention. And that's the way the world is now. I mean, the Titans have to do a lot to get any attention in the media and throughout the country, but as soon as someone makes a mistake, it gets really blown up, and I think that's unfortunate. 

Media outlets from all over try to call us to find out what's going on (with Littleton), but yet we start off 15-1 and not too many people were caring about what's going on. So it's unfair for this team. This team will respond to it and it will make us stronger in the long run. Not to say something like this has to happen, but it's something that, once we get beyond it, we'll just continue to go forward and not look back. While Wes is serving his suspension, he's not allowed to be around the team at all, as far as practice or anything like that, right?

Coach Serrano: He's not allowed to be around the team, in regards to workouts and all that. He is on a program on his own and he is able to work out on our field when we're not out there, with catchers that will catch him. He just can't be around during team activities. We have not turned our back on Wes Littleton and never will. And we would do that with everybody. It's just like I've always said, it's a family and one of your kids made a mistake and messed up, you're not going to kick him out of the family. And we've reiterated to Wes that he can come to us for any help and support that he needs and his teammates are right there for him. By the time he does come back, it'll end up being about a month-long layoff, is there any concern that it might take him a while to work himself back into top form?

Coach Serrano: Well, that's something I'll have to see when I evaluate him that week he comes back. He is on a program that I think is very similar to what he's done. I wouldn't expect him to come back and go 7-8 innings, but I don't think it's gonna be a huge dropoff. Wes is a very good athlete, keeps in great shape. And his arm is pretty resilient. We will be careful with him. But I don't think it's going to be something that takes him long to get back in the mix. And this type of situation, in general, when you have to discipline a player, as far as knowing the right thing to do, is that the toughest thing a coach has to deal with?

Coach Serrano: It is a part of our job, but it's very tough to deal with. Like I said, these kids are like our family, an extension of our family -- they ARE our family. Instead of having two or three kids like a lot of people do, we have 39 kids. They're not going to always be perfect. You have to discipline them accordingly. I think Wes understands that. He respects the decision we made, and he's going to go through with this and pay his penalty and then come back and the coaching staff and his teammates will welcome him back with open arms. I mean, he made a mistake, we've all made mistakes. And like I said, some get blown out of proportion, some get publicized and it's a human nature thing, everybody makes mistakes. I don't think anyone out there has a right to be critical of this situation, if they look in the mirror and realize that they've made mistakes in their life, too. We talked about the pitching depth earlier, let's look at Windsor and Tucker specifically. I think those two guys are the unsung heroes of this team because of the way they've been able to step in under the circumstances and the team hasn't missed a beat. I know they were both JC transfers and recruited walk-ons, but I don't think too many people know much about those guys. Can you tell us a little more about their backgrounds? 

Coach Serrano: No doubt, you're right on with that. Without those two guys coming to Cal State Fullerton, it would've been an uphill struggle for this pitching staff. And they're both very neat stories and I'm glad you asked about those two. 

Jason Windsor was recruited two years ago. He was supposed to be a part of the 2002 team. He was a freshman at West Valley Junior College in Northern California and we had signed him early to a scholarship. He was under the assumption that he was gonna qualify out of high school, in which he would've only needed 24 transferable units. When all his paperwork got in, he was a half-core class short of being a qualifier, which in turn meant that he needed his AA degree to transfer. 

He was at our school for two or three weeks until they realized that he was not going to be admissible and eligible. He went back to West Valley and tried to take something like 30 units to transfer in the spring time in 2002, and came up short. Obviously 30 units for anybody in one semester would be close to impossible, but he had the determination to try it. He went out last year and had worked so hard to get eligible, he wasn't really concentrating much on baseball for a while. 

And he didn't have a very good sophomore year last year at West Valley. He was injured (Tendonitis) and tried to rush to get back into shape and pitch. He contacted me in the summer and asked for another chance to get in. I had indicated to him that it would only be as a recruited walk-on. He said he was fine with that. He understood the situation. He just wanted to be a Titan, and the story goes on ... I mean, it's a great story of a kid that was so determined to be a Titan. 

Obviously, he was offered a good scholarship the first time out but couldn't get into school, and then decided to walk on because he just wanted to be a baseball player at Cal State Fullerton and be a part of our tradition. And he has done a phenomenal job for us. 

John Tucker is another great story. His dad had been recruiting us for a couple of years. John has bounced around a lot and had some injuries and his dad approached me and said, "We really don't have many other offers. John wants to stay local, wants to come to Cal State Fullerton." And I told him -- he was playing on a local summer team -- I'd go out and watch him pitch and make an evaluation then and give him him an honest opinion on where he would fit in this program. And so I saw him, it wasn't something that was spectacular, but he showed he threw strikes and he knew how to pitch and he had of experience. I told him we had a lot of depth (at pitching) and there were no promises, that he would be given every opportunity to win a job. But just because he wasn't on scholarship, that didn't mean he wasn't going to get a chance. 

And he was another guy that came in and said, "So what? Give me the ball, and I'll prove to you I can win for you." And he's done that. And those two guys are exactly what this program has been built on. It's not all about the high recruits, the high draft picks, it's guys that come in with a big heart and with desire and just want to do their best and prove they can play in this program. 

I think those two guys exemplify exactly what Cal State Fullerton is all about. We don't always get the greatest recruits, we don't always get the top recruits, we do well in recruiting because the staff works hard at that, but it's always those guys that come in, those recruited walk-ons that end up playing a big, major role in the team's success. And I think there are a lot of guys on our team like that. P.J. Pilittere's like that. Kurt Suzuki's like that. Richie Burgos is like that. Guys that weren't highly, highly recruited, guys that aren't on huge scholarships, but are huge contributors to the success of this program. And it's good that when these guys came to you, despite all the pitching depth you had, you were still open-minded enough to look at them and give them a chance and realize they could help the team, regardless of all depth you had. It just proves that you can never have too much pitching ...

Coach Serrano: Exactly. And there are probably some other guys down there that haven't been given an opportunity that we've decided to redshirt this year, that given an opportunity, they might be doing the same thing. But it's a coaches' decision and that's best for their careers to not waste a year. But yeah, you're exactly right on that. That's another reason why people say, you can never have enough pitching. And if there's ever a year for us to lose our No. 1 and No. 2 on paper, this is the year. There's not many programs that can get by with losing their 1 and 2 guys for at least four weekends. And it's a credit to the rest of the pitching staff and the rest of the team that they've picked up the slack while those guys are out. Looking back at the weekend for a second, if Kurt Suzuki hadn't hit the game-winning double Saturday night, would Spider have come up with a chance to win it in the ninth?

Coach Serrano: No, Coach was all set ... Shawn Scobee would've pinch-hit in that situation. Shawn Scobee was there and would've been given an opportunity to win that game. Spider is a versatile player, but I guess not in that situation ... 

Coach Serrano: Spider is a versatile player, but there are a couple guys available that are better hitters than him (laughs). With the undefeated home record this year, does that make it even more of a goal to host the regionals and super regionals?

Coach Serrano: I don't know if the record has anything to with us making it a goal to play at home. It's a goal, just because it's an advantage and it makes it a lot easier. It's never easy, but it does make it easier in the travel plan and the arrangements and all that, especially for the families of the players. But what it does is, you get to play in your own backyard and you get to have your family and friends right there. They don't have to travel all around the country to watch you play, and you have all the support right there in front of you. After doing that in 2001 and hosting it and winning it in front of our fans, it's payback for all the years of support to this program that they've given us. Let me ask you about the curfew/time limit situation, like we experienced in the Sunday Minnesota game and also the Sunday home game against Nevada, is that something you're gonna try to avoid in the future, maybe start the game earlier, like 11 a.m. when that situation arises again? 

Coach Serrano: Well, really the situation has arisen since 9/11, to be honest with you. There's always been curfews, the SEC conference has a lot of curfews, but it has made it much more difficult to travel with a team, when you have a travel party of 32 people, getting them through all the security checks. We did try to move it up with the coaching staff in Minnesota, but the Metrodome is used by many teams out there in the Midwest. There are teams around the clock that play there. After every one of our games, there's another game behind it, so it was impossible to get our game time moved up in that situation. A

There's never a time clock in baseball, you have to play 27 outs until the last out, but we knew the situation going into the game, just like we knew that going into the Reno game. With some of the travel arrangements going on now, it's difficult to get teams through those security checks with all the bags and all the bats and all that. It's something that might happen again in the near future with other situations. We always try to prevent that, if we can but it's equal on both sides. Who knows? Maybe we come back and win that game, but we knew the obstacle we were up against and we knew that was the last inning going into the bottom of the eighth. Looking at the weekend with Long Beach State, what's the rotation gonna be this week?

Coach Serrano: The weekend will be Jason Windsor on Friday, Dustin Miller on Saturday and Sunday will be Ricky Romero. What has brought me to that decision is, I feel more comfortable allowing Darric and Travis to get back in the mode and back into shape and getting innings under the belt, I think it's best for them and the team for them to go into Jason Windsor's old spot, the long relief position. They'll get their innings and get back into shape and then we'll put this whole puzzle back together when we feel the time is right... When we get Schreppel and Littleton, it'll be which three guys give us the best opportunity to win on the weekend and which guys give us the best opportunity to win out of the bullpen. And you want to keep Tucker in the bullpen because of his value down there?

Coach Serrano: Yeah, I think so. Tucker, Martin, Cordero, along with whoever the other guys are, Merrell, Ingle, Romero, Windsor. I think that's been a strength of our team. No jobs are secure yet. I think guys are starting to fit into their roles. Dustin Miller has had stellar weekends, then he's really struggled, it's been every other weekend for him. With the depth we have and the consistency some of these guys have given us, he's going to have to get back on pace of giving us six, seven solid innings every weekend or somebody's going to take his position. 

And I think that's what's made this team so good. And that isn't just for the pitching staff, that's throughout the whole team. You don't have to play scared or pitch scared, but if you're not performing up to your capability or the capability of what the coaching staff thinks, there's a guy just as good, if not better, right behind you. That's definitely the key word this year -- depth. And that'll do it for this edition of Ask Dave.